Online Cataloging Done Right(ish)

I think that out of any web project I’ve ever dealt with in higher education, online cataloging has got to be the biggest white unicorn of them all. If you scour the web for them, you’ll discover that examples of ‘good’ catalogs are few and far between (and you’ll note I’m certainly not putting my school on the list below… yet). In fact, a lot of them are downright painful. Why is this? What makes it so hard? I want to look at this problem, then offer up some examples to help inspire you when you come around to this challenge.

The Problem

The problem of online catalog design is that by its nature, it goes against one of the fundamental tenets of web design: You don’t just push a print document to the web. But we aren’t talking about a flyer or pamphlet here. We’re talking about one of the biggest, most important print documents a university puts out. The two challenges that make this especially difficult are that the workflows in place for creating the catalog tend to be very complex and non-web-centric, and the project normally starts as print and is then pushed to web, instead of the other way around. It also doesn’t help if you’re in an environment where the primary content managers for your catalog are neither web nor print people.

Changing this normally requires a complete overhaul of the process used to create the catalog. Not an easy task. Not at all. The bad part is, most modern CMSs are completely capable of managing an online catalog that could output XML that would drop right into software like InDesign. Add some photos, a cover, and an index and bam - instant catalog. Too often, however, the project doesn’t start with the process, only the technology. Knowing what your CMS is capable of, and making sure the process in place to use it is implemented right are two different things. Compounding the issue, this might be just one of several projects your office is involved with. Next to a complete site redesign or student portal implementation, this is probably one of the biggest undertakings a university will tackle. If you aren’t giving it your complete attention, odds are the result will suffer. It’s easy to just dump a bunch of copy and pasted text into HTML page, it’s hard to actually make it useful and usable.

And as I mentioned in the first paragraph, there just aren’t a lot of great reference points that showcase “this is how to do it right.” As a matter of fact, a quick search of eduStyle reveals only one entry tagged catalog, and the numbers on it aren’t good. Run through some . A lot of the top hits are kind of trainwrecks of information overload.

Some Advice

I can’t tell you the end all way of how to do something like this. The fact of the matter is, every university is likely to be quite different from the rest in how this is done. But, I will offer up some advice:

  • Make sure ALL stakeholders get together (registrar, print folks, graphic designers, etc) to understand the transition.
  • Commit to a ‘data first’ policy. Catalogs are no longer print projects, they are data projects. Do the data right (most likely in your web CMS), and the rest falls into place.
  • Understand that whatever processes produce the catalog now, they will almost have to be scrapped. Don’t try to shoehorn a legacy process into place.
  • Realize that even though you will have the same data in both places, your online catalog doesn’t have to have the same presentation or organization. Respect your medium.
  • Devote considerable time to developing a thoughtful, appropriate information architecture and navigation for web. Remember, web users won’t use a catalog online the same way you would use a book. Having a table of contents page ten miles long might not be advisable (Sorry UT-Austin, I’m looking at you).

I would also advise you to not entirely disregard taking a shortcut with a catalog service such as ACMS (See UT-Knoxville below for a good example). Are they perfect? No. But they have tried to address the most common issues facing the development and management of online catalogs, and in many cases catalogs I have seen using them have been much better than those without. This is an area where, like deploying a CMS or e-commerce platform, the project is big enough that trying to find an in-house solution may simply not be reasonably feasible given the resources you have available to devote to it.

Also, be sure to work the maintenance and upkeep of the catalog into your overall content strategy. Catalogs are already living documents, regularly being edited and updated for the next version. In many cases, you can process and prepare those changes ahead of time on the web. It’s possible that it can always reflect the most recent up to date information available. Have a routine for that. Be sure the routine involves the right people at the right points for the content creation and approval. Also keep an eye on options for enhancing or improving the features of the catalog by enabling ways to help people use it, such as specialized search, course filtering, and other yet-to-be foreseen tools.

Now, Some Inspiration

First, these are in no particular order. And I want to point out that I didn’t pick some of these because they were the prettiest. I tried to select these based on a combination of aesthetics and usability. I can forgive something not looking top notch if the navigation makes sense and information is presented well. I would also say that all of these have improvements that could be made as well. But, if you need some ideas, these would definitely be some to keep handy for reference.

Catalog at the University of Houston

School: University of Houston
Why We Like It:
The catalog home page itself provides a concise table of contents that doesn’t come across as too overwhelming. The sidebar navigation is relatively appropriate and breaks down into sections well. The additional tools under the left nav are also a nice touch. Generally, this catalog feels organized and logical, and isn’t particularly intimidating to use.

Catalog at the University of Buffalo

School: University of Buffalo
Why We Like It:
These folks have really set a good bar for how to create a nicely usable catalog. The core navigation is exceptionally simple, and the information is well structured. They have also integrated actual tools like course search right into the site, rather than just doing a cut and paste job from a print document. They also have fairly simple access to archived PDF versions of past catalogs. I like this, because it makes it easy to keep that information from polluting search results.

Catalog at the University of Texas, Arlington

School: University of Texas, Arlington
Why We Like It:
UT-Arlington has put a nice amount of effort into their online catalog’s presentation, partly because they no longer offer a print catalog (like some of the other examples here, part cost saving, part sustainability). Individual pages can be exported as PDFs, allowing users to selectively save copies of only what they need. While some pages can get rather lengthy at times, those pages usually have their own table of contents at the top to get you where you need to go quickly. This is one of the best “feeling” catalogs I’ve seen.

Catalog at Hamilton College

School: Hamilton College
Why We Like It:
At first glance, I wasn’t going to include this on the list. After looking around though, I think there’s some effort here that needs to be acknowledged. They have taken a slightly different approach from the others, giving you quick access via the drop down to individual academic area information. While the sidebar could be cleaned up with something like a jQuery accordion menu, they’ve done a good job simplifying everything into five overall areas. The overall catalog feels very much like a port of a print document, but I found it generally very usable. I never felt lost in it, and even on long pages, it seemed like they had given attention to making sure everything was laid out properly and readable (such as lists and tables, which many folks tend to copy and paste without regard to the effect on the overall page layout).

Catalog at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

School: University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Why We Like It:
Tennessee is one of the clients of ACMS that has done a rather nice job of integrating the third party platform into their site for the catalog. The look is nice, the navigation is good, and it’s fairly easy to use and understand. This is a good example to make a case if you want to use a ready made tool for handling catalogs. Like UB, they have actual tools integrated with their catalog as well, taking advantage of the data collected in it.

Catalog at St. Cloud State University

School: St. Cloud State University
Why We Like It:
St. Cloud has put together a nicely unassuming catalog. It might not jump out at you at first, but the navigation is pretty straightforward and makes good sense when you start interacting with it. Individual pages are broken down progressively so that you are never hit with an enormous amount of information at once, they keep stuff pretty bite-sized.

Hopefully these examples can give you some inspiration of a good way to architect your online catalog moving forward. Have I missed a really exceptional one? Be sure to share it in the comments!

Photo Credit: cc icon attribution small Online Cataloging Done Right(ish) Some rights reserved by Vee Dub

2 Responses to “Online Cataloging Done Right(ish)”

  1. Says:

    Not to toot our own horn, but we just revised our online catalog process at Cal State Monterey Bay which included workflow changes as well as a new CMS (Drupal) which we built some customizations on that are helpful for unruly catalog pages.

    First, we made a nice way for people to structure complicated major requirements into groupings:

    Second, we integrated the catalog site with our student information system’s catalog records to replace all mentions of a course on any page with a linked course number and title (a simple Drupal filter rule) - which we can then audit later to see if courses are mentioned in the catalog that are due to be sunset:

    Third, we built out special pages for student “pathways” (an illustration of how to actually graduate in a program at 120 units). These again automatically compare data in our SIS with data on the page:

    That being said, we have some issues with the IA of the site, but you know, committees….

  2. Says:

    I’ll toot our own horn! Stony Brook University’s online bulletin was done with help from our CMS provider, OmniUpdate, and now we have a much more user-friendly, searchable bulletin that is updated each semester. Find it at

    Director of Web Marketingis right on about getting stakeholders together to understand the process, understand that the web is not print, and focus on the data. We’ve gotten great feedback.

    Glad also to see Buffalo on the list. Definitely one of our inspirations.